The History of Sexuality

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The History of Sexuality
File:History of Sexuality, French edition, volume one.jpg
Cover of the first edition of volume 1
Author Michel Foucault
Original title Histoire de la sexualité
Translator Robert Hurley
Country France
Language French
Subject History of human sexuality
Publisher Éditions Gallimard
Publication date
1976 (vol. 1)
1984 (vol. 2)
1984 (vol. 3)
Published in English
1978 (vol. 1)
1985 (vol. 2)
1986 (vol. 3)
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 168 (English ed., vol. 1)
293 (English ed., vol. 2)
279 (English ed., vol. 3)
ISBN 0-14-012474-8 (vol. 1)
0-14-013734-5 (vol. 2)
0-14-013735-1 (vol. 3)

The History of Sexuality (French: L’Histoire de la sexualité) is a three-volume study of sexuality in the western world by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. The first volume, The Will to Knowledge (La volonté de savoir), was first published in 1976 by Éditions Gallimard; an English translation by Robert Hurley was published by Allen Lane in 1978. It was followed by The Use of Pleasure (l'usage des plaisirs), and The Care of the Self (le souci de soi), both published in 1984.

In Volume I, Foucault explores the "repressive hypothesis", the idea that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century due to the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society. Foucault argues that the hypothesis is incorrect, and that discourse on sexuality proliferated during this period, during which experts began to examine sexuality in a scientific manner, encouraging people to confess their sexual feelings and actions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he argues, society takes an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within the marital bond: the "world of perversion" that includes the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal and the homosexual. By the 19th century, he maintains, sexuality was being readily explored both through confession and scientific enquiry. The second two volumes deal with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. The History of Sexuality received a mixed reception, with some reviewers praising the book and others criticizing Foucault's scholarship.



Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were published before Foucault's death in 1984. The first volume, The Will to Knowledge (previously known as An Introduction in English—Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonté de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, and the functioning of sexuality as an analytics of power related to the emergence of a science of sexuality, and the emergence of biopower in the West. The work was a further development of the account of the interaction of knowledge and power Foucault provided in Discipline and Punish (1975).[1]

The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualité, II: l'usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. The latter volume deals considerably with the ancient technological development of the hypomnema which was used to establish a permanent relationship to oneself. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault's death, the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986.

In his lecture series from 1979 to 1980 Foucault extended his analysis of government to its "...wider sense of techniques and procedures designed to direct the behaviour of men", which involved a new consideration of the "...examination of conscience" and confession in early Christian literature. These themes of early Christian literature seemed to dominate Foucault's work, alongside his study of Greek and Roman literature, until the end of his life. However, Foucault's death left the work incomplete, and the planned fourth volume of his History of Sexuality on Christianity was never published. The fourth volume was to be entitled Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair). The volume was almost complete before Foucault's death and a copy of it is privately held in the Foucault archive. It cannot be published under the restrictions of Foucault's estate.[2]

Volume I: The Will to Knowledge

Part I: We "Other Victorians"

Part One, entitled "We “Other Victorians”", opens with a discussion of what Foucault calls the "...repressive hypothesis", the widespread belief among late 20th-century westerners that sexuality, and the open discussion of sex, was socially repressed during the late 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, a by-product of the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society. Arguing that this was never actually the case, he asks the question as to why modern westerners believe such a hypothesis, noting that in portraying past sexuality as repressed, it provides a basis for the idea that in rejecting past moral systems, future sexuality can be free and uninhibited, a " of earthly delights".[3]

Part II: The Repressive Hypothesis

Proceeding to go into further depth in Part Two, "The Repressive Hypothesis," Foucault notes that from the 17th century to the 1970s, there had actually been a "...veritable discursive explosion" in the discussion of sex, albeit using an "...authorized vocabulary" that codified where one could talk about it, when one could talk about it, and with whom. He argues that this desire to talk so enthusiastically about sex in the western world stems from the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church called for its followers to confess their sinful desires as well as their actions. As evidence for the obsession of talking about sex, he highlights the publication of the book My Secret Life, anonymously written in the late 19th century and detailing the sex life of a Victorian gentleman. Indeed, Foucault states that at the start of the 18th century, there was an emergence of "...a political, economic, and technical incitement to talk about sex,"...with self-appointed experts speaking both moralistically and rationally on sex, the latter sort trying to categorize it. He notes that in that century, governments became increasingly aware that they were not merely having to manage "subjects" or "a people" but a "population", and that as such they had to concern themselves with such issues as birth and death rates, marriage, and contraception, thereby increasing their interest and changing their discourse on sexuality.[5]

Entering the second chapter of this section, "The Perverse Implantation", Foucault argues that prior to the 18th century, discourse on sexuality focuses on the productive role of the married couple, which is monitored by both canonical and civil law. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he argues, society ceases discussing the sex lives of married couples, instead taking an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within this union; the "world of perversion" that includes the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal and the homosexual. He notes that this had three major effects on society. Firstly, there was increasing categorization of these "perverts"; where previously a man who engaged in same-sex activities would be labeled as an individual who succumbed to the sin of sodomy, now they would be categorised into a new "species," that of homosexual. Secondly, Foucault argues that the labeling of perverts conveyed a sense of "pleasure and power" on to both those studying sexuality and the perverts themselves. Thirdly, he argues that bourgeoisie society exhibited "blatant and fragmented perversion," readily engaging in perversity but regulating where it could take place.[6]

Part III: Scientia Sexualis

In part three, "Scientia Sexualis", Foucault explores the development of the scientific study of sex, the attempt to unearth the "truth" of sex, a phenomenon which Foucault argues is peculiar to the West. In contrast to the West's sexual science, Foucault introduces the "ars erotica" which he states has only existed in Ancient and Eastern societies. Furthermore, he argues that this scientia sexualis has repeatedly been used for political purposes, being utilized in the name of "public hygiene" to support state racism. Returning to the influence of the Catholic confession, he looks at the relationship between the confessor and the authoritarian figure that he confesses to, arguing that as Roman Catholicism was eclipsed in much of Western and Northern Europe following the Reformation, the concept of confession survived and became more widespread, entering into the relationship between parent and child, patient and psychiatrist and student and educator. By the 19th century, he maintains, the "truth" of sexuality was being readily explored both through confession and scientific enquiry. Foucault proceeds to examine how the confession of sexuality then comes to be "constituted in scientific terms," arguing that scientists begin to trace the cause of all aspects of human psychology and society to sexual factors.[7]

Part IV: The Deployment of Sexuality

In part four, "The Deployment of Sexuality," Foucault explores the question as to why western society wishes to seek for the "truth" of sex. Chapter one, "Objective", lays out Foucault's argument that we need to develop an "analytics" of power through which to understand sex. Highlighting that power controls sex by laying down rules for it to follow, he discusses how power demands obedience through domination, submission, and subjugation, and also how power masks its true intentions by disguising itself as beneficial. As an example, he highlights the manner in which the feudal absolute monarchies of historical Europe, themselves a form of power, disguised their intentions by claiming that they were necessary to maintain law, order, and peace. As a leftover concept from the days of feudalism, Foucault argues that westerners still view power as emanating from law, but he rejects this, proclaiming that we must "...construct an analytics of power that no longer takes law as a model and a code," and announcing that a different form of power governs sexuality. "We must," Foucault states, "at the same time conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king."[8]

In the second chapter, "Method", Foucault explores what he means by "Power", explaining that he does not mean power as the domination or subjugation exerted on society by the government or the state, but instead remarks that power should be understood "as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate." In this way, he argues, "Power is everywhere . . . because it comes from everywhere," emanating from all social relationships and being imposed throughout society bottom-up rather than top-down.[9]

Part V: Right of Death and Power over Life

In part five, "The Right of Death and Power over Life," Foucault asserts that the motivations for power over life and death have changed. As in feudal times the "right to life" was more or less a "right to death" because sovereign powers were able to decide when a person died. This has changed to a "right to live," as sovereign states are more concerned about the power of how people live. Power becomes about how to foster life. For example, a state decides to execute someone as a safe guard to society not as justified, as it once was, as vengeful justice. This new emphasis on power over life is called Biopower and comes in two forms. First, Foucault says it is "centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls."[10] The second form, Foucault argues, emerged later and focuses on the "species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that cause these to vary.[11] Biopower, it is argued, is the source of the rise of capitalism, as states became interested in regulating and normalizing power over life and not as concerned about punishing and condemning actions.

Scholarly reception

The reception of The History of Sexuality among scholars and academics has been mixed.

Historian Jane Caplan calls The History of Sexuality "certainly the most ambitious and interesting recent attempt to analyse the relations between the production of concepts and the history of society in the field of sexuality", but criticizes Foucault for using "an undifferentiated concept" of speech and an imprecise notion of "power".[12] Gay activist Dennis Altman describes Foucault's work as representative of the position that homosexuals emerged as a social category in 18th and 19th century western Europe.[13] Feminist Germaine Greer writes that Foucault rightly argues that, "what we have all along taken as the breaking-through of a silence and the long delayed giving of due attention to human sexuality was in fact the promotion of human sexuality, indeed, the creation of an internal focus for the individual's preoccupations."[14] Historian Peter Gay writes that Foucault is right to raise questions about the "repressive hypothesis", but that "his procedure is anecdotal and almost wholly unencumbered by facts; using his accustomed technique (reminiscent of the principle underlying Oscar Wilde's humor) of turning accepted ideas upside down, he turns out to be right in part for his private reasons."[15]

Classicist Page duBois describes The Use of Pleasure as "one of the most exciting new books in the field of classical studies" and "an important contribution to the history of sexuality", but adds that Foucault "takes for granted, and thus 'authorizes,' exactly what needs to be explained: the philosophical establishment of the autonomous male subject".[16] Historian Patricia O'Brien writes that Foucault was "without expertise" in dealing with antiquity, and that The History of Sexuality lacks "the methodological rigor of Foucault's earlier works, and especially of Discipline and Punish."[17] Classicist David M. Halperin writes in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990) that the appearance of the English translation of the first volume of Foucault's work in 1978, together with the publication of K. J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality the same year, marked the beginning of a new era in the study of the history of sexuality.[18] He suggests that The History of Sexuality may be the most important contribution to the history of western morality since Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).[19] Scholar Camille Paglia rejects Halperin's views as uninformed, calling The History of Sexuality a "disaster" and claiming that much of it is fantasy unsupported by the historical record. Paglia observes that the book "is acknowledged even by Foucault's admirers to be his weakest work".[20]

Jurist and economist Richard Posner calls The History of Sexuality "a remarkable fusion of philosophy and intellectual history", adding that Hurley's translation is brilliant and that the book is lucidly written.[21] Literary critic Alexander Welsh criticizes Foucault for failing to place Sigmund Freud in the context of 19th century thought and culture.[22] Historian Roy Porter calls The History of Sexuality, "a brilliant enterprise, astonishingly bold, shocking even, in its subversion of conventional explanatory frameworks, chronologies, and evaluations, and in its proposed alternatives." Porter credits Foucault with discrediting the view, proposed for example by Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilization (1955), that "industrialization demanded erotic austerity."[23] Classicist Bruce Thornton writes that The Use of Pleasure, the second volume of The History of Sexuality, is "usually quite readable" and that Foucault makes "good observations about the various techniques developed to control passion." However, Thornton criticizes Foucault for limiting his scope to "fourth-century medical and philosophical works".[24] Philosopher Roger Scruton dismisses The History of Sexuality as "mendacious", and calls his book Sexual Desire (1986) an answer to Foucault's work.[25] Romana Byrne criticizes Foucault's argument that the scientia sexualis belongs to modern Western culture while the ars erotica belongs only to Eastern and Ancient societies, arguing that a form of ars erotica has been evident in Western society since at least the eighteenth century.[26]

See also



  1. Bernasconi 2005. p. 310.
  2. Foucault 1999. pp. 34, 47
  3. Foucault 1976. pp. 1–14.
  4. Foucault 1976. p. 49.
  5. Foucault 1976. pp. 15–36.
  6. Foucault 1976. pp. 37–49.
  7. Foucault 1976. pp. 53–73.
  8. Foucault 1976. p. 77–91.
  9. Foucault 1976. p. 92–102.
  10. Foucault 1976. p. 139.
  11. Foucault 1976. p. 139.
  12. Caplan 1981. p. 165.
  13. Altman 1982. p. 48.
  14. Greer 1985. p. 198.
  15. Gay 1985. pp. 468-9.
  16. duBois 1988. p. 2.
  17. O'Brien 1989. p. 42.
  18. Halperin 1990. p. 4.
  19. Halperin 1990. p. 62.
  20. Paglia 1993. p. 187.
  21. Posner 1992. p. 23.
  22. Welsh 1994. p. 128.
  23. Porter 1996. pp. 248, 252.
  24. Thornton 1997. p. 246.
  25. Scruton 2005. p. 55.
  26. Byrne 2013. pp. 1-4.


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External links